The Value Of Utilitarianism Marketing

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It’s a cluttered world. It’s an even more cluttered Marketing world.

Brands still think it’s all about the pomp and circumstance. It is… and it isn’t. No one (especially me) is going to deny that a well-executed Superbowl ad gets attention, gets a brand noticed and results in lift (sales, brand awareness, whatever). No one is going to deny that a well-played experiential marketing event builds buzz and gets attention. There are many online media properties that have very convincing data to back-up the purchase of a homepage takeover ad. Making noise can create noise in the marketplace.

The challenge comes when you shift over to the newer digital marketing platforms.

It’s obvious that just having a Facebook page, YouTube channel, Twitter feed or whatever can get a brand to accumulate followers and friends at a fast and furious pace. Consumers like feeling that they’re a part of an inner circle or the first to know something. Brands are great at dangling those carrots in front of consumers who are willing to click a "like" or "follow" button. It can be a dangerous game of diminishing returns. All marketing initiatives face the reality of fatigue – it happens in direct marketing, it happens in email marketing and it’s going to happen in Social Media (it’s probably already happened). People get tired (pretty quickly) of the same old, same old.

Give them utility or give them death.

The rise of Utilitarianism Marketing is not something we see talked about as much as we should. When something out of the marketing department doesn’t have a huge splash around it or a billboard in Times Square for the senior management team to point at, it tends to get yawns. The yawns happen because the numbers don’t look the same when benchmarked against traditional mass media or other forms of advertising. Actually giving consumers something valuable seems counterintuitive to most marketing departments because they equate "value" with "cost" and the last thing a marketer wants to do is give something that costs them more money to less people than the heat they are getting from their traditional advertising.

The truth is that great Utilitarianism Marketing doesn’t have to cost more. It just has to be useful.

Last year, I was in a business meeting where the idea for an iPhone app came up. It was a smart idea (you know, the kind of idea that you wish you had thought of). The Chief Marketing Officer smiled during the presentation, put his hand up to ask a question, removed the glasses from his eyes and placed them on his notebook, folded his hands, leaned forward and said, "it’s genius… but can we put our four key brand messages in there as well, because if we don’t force people to look at them, what’s the point of this app?"

The point is this: if you give something to people that they actually want to use…. no, need to use, they will love you and be loyal to you forever.

It seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Something that is useful to a consumer… truly useful… without a sales pitch… without in-your-face marketing messaging is the next generation of marketing. People are smart. They’ll figure it out. They’ll think to themselves, "I can’t live without this app… I can’t believe Brand X just gave it to me… how cool is that?

Utilitarianism Marketing is already working.

Two brands that are leveraging the notion of Utilitarianism Marketing are Charmin and Nationwide. They are both mobile apps. Charmin launched Sit Or Squat – an application that leverages the location-based services of your mobile device to tell you where the nearest (and cleanest) bathroom is. Consumers can also add their favorites or rate the ones they have just used (as a frequent traveler, this app holds a coveted position on my home screen). The Nationwide Mobile App is for people who were just in a car accident. It’s a useful step-by-step program that walks consumers through everything from collecting and exchanging accident information to taking pictures of the accident scene, recording the location and it even has a flashlight in case it happens at night. It’s not an ad. It’s not push Marketing. It’s Utilitarianism Marketing.

Why don’t more brands make themselves more useful?


  1. That sound? My head hitting my desk every time a client thinks ‘numbers’ on social media channels are what matters.
    Thank you for not adding to my pain with another ‘list’ of why they don’t matter (I’m running out of Advil) and for sharing what actually does (and will continue to) make a real impact. (erm. that pun? totally not intended)

  2. It has been interesting watching the responses dwindle from and to various users as time goes on. Very simple pattern. Newbie—>lots of 2-way activity—>dwindling responses to and from—–fade away. I remember when the Home Shopping Network was taking over the world too….It’s a new toy…not a revolution….and it’s already diluted and full of soured users as they realize EVERYONE is just trying to sell them. The subtle art of social media has already been abused into the dirt.

  3. I think this ethic extends beyond just marketing, Mitch.
    I had a discussion yesterday in which I argued — as I have for years — that superior customer service is the only truly sustainable competitive differentiation most companies can build for themselves. The counter argument was that superior customer service is expensive, and doesn’t lend itself to traditional ROI measurements.
    However, good customer service is the very embodiment of the utilitarianism approach of giving your customers what they want and value.
    BTW: My next click is to that Charmin app!

  4. “The point is this: if you give something to people that they actually want to use…. no, need to use, they will love you and be loyal to you forever.”
    Absolutely love that quote Mitch. If I had to sum up what content marketing is all about – that’s it.

  5. Love this post, Mitch!
    You’ve really brought to light that it’s no longer just about the product that you buy, it’s about the ‘other stuff’ a company does for you, too. A company’s utility needs to extend beyond the point of purchase and in to the ‘everyday’ of customers lives.
    Those who succeed at this will thrive, those that fail will fade away.

  6. Great post Mitch. I’ve been trying to push this way of thinking out here too. Sadly, I come up against people who believe that brands aren’t there to actually help the people who use their products. Most businesses don’t think of actual altruism but focus instead on their bottom line. “Adding value” means wallpapers, ringtones or something cheap that doesn’t actually solve a real problem. It’s a short-sighted mentality that is going to take a lot work to change. Your post is a definite step in the right direction.

  7. Nicely said and spot on. Usefulness and utility to me has always been of absolutely primary importance. How on earth can marketers hope to deliver value without being useful? Even pure entertainment (which is not my cup of tea, being in B2B) has a use, which is to entertain us. When it fails to do so, it is “useless.”
    So much of what is done in marketing–whether traditional tactics or new ones, fails to meet the utility test. And it should be applied to information, as well, which means your content marketing had better be useful and not just attention-grabbing baubles to nowhere.
    Quibble: shouldn’t it be “utilitarian” marketing? No need for the “ism.”

  8. I think that Utilitarian marketing is a genius idea. In Ethics in Communication, utilitarianism is defined as an ethical standard that, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” I feel that businesses could take a lot from this. The main goal for businesses is to have satisfied customers, when they are marketing through an ethical standard that promotes happiness, there is a pretty definite assurance that they will have happy customers. Of course, this would all be relative to the business at hand, but if a business can make utilitarian marketing work for their product or service they should take full advantage of the ethical ground they is available to them through that.
    Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2009). Ethics in human communication. (6th ed.). Waveland Pr Inc.

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